Tuesday, July 28, 2015

House of Cards

My life, for as long as I can remember, has been structured by people. I think that's probably a normal thing for many. Parents and siblings are constructs from whom we derive, even under the worst of circumstances, a sense of belonging and identity. As we grow older, we incorporate others into that structural framework - people who remind us who we are, or who support our ideas or beliefs. Sometimes we don't even realize we've added them to the system until they're no longer there.

My experience has been that I randomly add people for no distinct reason and neither intimacy nor longevity in our relationship dictates that addition. Something happens when we meet and in my mind that person becomes a permanent fixture. This realization became annoyingly obvious to me this year when two of my clients passed away.

The first was a man who was my neighbor when I was growing up. I saw him at least weekly in church, and spoke with him frequently. He would shake my hand and smile, remembering my name and asking a brief question about things that might be happening in my life. He was just younger than my grandfather. His wife enthusiastically sang in the choir with a very wide vibrato that begged for imitation by my sisters and I when we believed no one was listening. I liked my neighbor. I loved his wife. They created a predictable, dependable, structural element as I grew into adulthood.

The second was a woman I met occasionally, but never for very long. My dad and I took care of some estate planning for her parents, and she became a client through our interaction with them. I first met her after her mother's funeral. She remembered me as a young girl, though I had no recollection of meeting her. She called me beautiful and hugged me. Not really a typical client response, but this lady was not typical in much of anything. She was lovely and capable and accepted people into her life with cordiality and delight. Following our meeting that day, I had many opportunities to speak with her as she sought tax-related financial advice, or checked in on my parents as they endured cancer and other difficulties.

This year both of these clients became cancer victims. I received a phone call from the son of the man I had known most of my life. The tax documents were late because of his father's death. He assumed I had been told. I hadn't been. The funeral was past. The documents for the final tax return would come shortly. I expressed my condolences to the son. Then I ended the phone call and cried a little bit. I would never shake that man's hand again, or see his smile, or answer a question while wondering how he found time to be concerned about me and my life. That realization was coupled with the knowledge that it had been a long time since I had heard his wife sing. She lives still, but has dementia. Probably she doesn't know me anymore.

My second client passed away this month after a five-year battle with brain cancer. As they removed portions of her brain to control tumor growth, she fought to remember names and events. She didn't forget me, though. She told me she was grateful for my help-- that she felt she could trust me. There was feuding amongst she and her siblings. She would mention some of the disagreements to me with a brief, cryptic statement, then laugh and say, "You don't want to hear about our childish squabbles. Some adults never quite grow up, you know." Then she would move on to talk about something she loved or that brought her joy. I've still not quite accepted the reality that I won't be speaking with her on the phone anymore.

My life feels out of balance as people exit mortality. These are people that made me feel life was sane when everything else felt crazy and unstable. They weren't part of my every day existence. They were just there. I knew they were there. The fact that they were there without my having to check in with them, made life feel calm and predictable. And now they're not there anymore.

At some point, most of those people of my father's generation and older will go away. Some who are younger will exit this life, as well. I know it happens. I've experienced it multiple times. But there is a part of me that wishes things might stay the same - that I'll go back to that old church building where I grew up and find my friend waiting to shake my hand, or speaking in church, or just waving as he passes my house in his old pickup truck. Or maybe I'll go to the office next week and there will be a message from my client - she has a question - she's spoken to my father - but she'd really like to talk with me, as well - might I call her, please?

It won't happen. I'm going to miss them.